Surinamese Indians: A new voyage of nostalgia and rediscovering roots

It’s been 140 years ago since the first group of Indians reached Suriname, then a Dutch colony in northern South America, in June 1873 on the sailing ship Lalla Rookh. But the memories of dislocation and separation from homeland continue to shimmer on the waves of time. Refreshingly, a new generation of Surinamese Indians has awakened to the pull of nostalgia and deep-down cultural connections to their ethnic heritage. They are now on a back-to-roots voyage and this is the perfect time to reflect back and celebrate this organic interconnection between their new country and the homes they left behind.

June 5 is celebrated in Suriname as the Indian Arrival Day. About a hundred years later, when Suriname was on the verge of getting independence, thousands of Surinamese Indians emigrated to the Netherlands. This year is the 140th anniversary of the arrival of Indians to Suriname and the fourth decade of Indian migration to the Netherlands. The two anniversaries are being commemorated through a series of events in Suriname and the Netherlands. They have led many younger Surinamese Indians to seek to know more about their ancestors’ journey to Suriname.

surinam-indiansThe early Indian migrants were indentured workers, who had been brought to Suriname to work on the sugarcane plantations. The workers were lured through misrepresentation and deceit; they had no idea of the conditions they would have to work under or even that they were going to a foreign land. They bore the hardships of life on the plantation and then made a living for themselves in Suriname. Their descendants do not know the trials and tribulations their ancestors faced and how they managed to retain their cultural values and traditions against tremendous pressure to convert. There is now a new generation of Surinamese Indians that wants to correct the misconceptions in the history books and present their true stories through songs and films in the 140th year of Indian arrival.

There is a skewed view of the Indian migration in Suriname that ignores the oppression and suffering of indenture and focuses on the new beginning the Indians made in Suriname. Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo has a statue of Barnet Lyon. He was the Agent General, who handled the indenture migration and is presented as a hero of the Indian workers. It is a little known fact that there were 40 uprisings during the period of indentured labour (1873-1921) by Indian workers protesting against their working conditions which were just short of slavery.

There is now greater interest in taking a fresh look at those uprisings.  A research team was granted permission by the Suriname government to conduct surveys to locate the graves of 24 Indian workers killed in the Marienburg massacre. In July 2006 a monument was erected to commemorate the workers uprising. Now archaeologist Benjamin Mitrasingh plans to excavate in the grounds of the Marienburg estate using modern technology to locate the mass graves.

In another instance, historian Tanya Sitaram has focused on the long forgotten Zorg en Hoop uprising of 1884. It was a labour revolt that took place just over ten years after the Indian workers arrived in Suriname and its leaders, including one woman were ruthlessly killed.

surinamSitaram’s research revealed that the workers at Zorg en Hoop plantation were protesting against unpaid wages, overwork and penal punishments. One of the women workers, Janey Tetary, who came to Suriname in 1880 with her young son, Boodhoo, inspired the women workers to demand their rights and fight alongside the men. Dutch soldiers were sent to arrest the leaders. The workers resisted the arrests and at the end of the day six men and one woman were dead. A young mother of 24 years, Tetary was shot through her head, according to the autopsy report in the National Archives.  A film based on the life of Tetary was recently telecast on television in the Netherlands.

Cut off from their homes in India, the Indians in Suriname strove to preserve their Indian identity. They retained their cultural traditions, language and the richness of Indian folk music. Sarnami (Surinamese Hindi) spoken by them is a mix of Bhojpuri with Maithali and Awadhi and a few words of Creole and Dutch thrown in. It is a living and thriving language with several successful Hindi newspapers, magazines and radio stations.

A film made for the 140th anniversary called “Apno ki yaad” features the lively music and song traditions. It depicts the memory of separation from loved ones and the dislocation of migration. The film was produced through three-way collaboration between the University of Paramaribo, Suriname, Royal Tropical Institute, Netherlands and the Gobind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute of Allahabad University, India.

Prof Badri Narayan of the Gobind Ballabh Pant Institute said that the film is centred on the common strands of song and music between India and Suriname. There is a strong tradition of songs of separation in Suriname that evolved from the Bhojpuri bideshiya repertoire. “The bideshiya songs are songs of migration – of leaving home and going away to find work. They touch a deep emotional chord among the listeners. There are similar songs that are still sung in Suriname that tell of dislocation, of longing for the loved ones left behind”, he explained.

“The bideshiya folk tradition evolved during colonial times. Kolkata is a metaphor for migration in the songs. The indenture migrants were taken through Kolkata port and it is mentioned in many of the songs sung by the women who were left behind,” Prof Badri Narayan said.

For the Surinamese Indians, language became a symbol of their cultural identity. In recent days, there has been a revival of interest among the young generation about their history and a rediscovery of the links to their ethnic heritage.